In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies “Picasso Érotique,” beautifully installed in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until September 16, Jean-Jacques Lebel reproduces an extraordinary drawing that is not included in the exhibition itself. On the right is a vagina, sparsely surrounded by pubic hairs. It dwarfs the homuncular male figure, moving open-eyed and stubble-cheeked into the dark night of death, emblematized by a sweep of black wash. The date of execution is inscribed in large and ornamental numerals–25.7.72. It was perhaps the last of the goaty old master’s drawings of a woman’s sexe–he was to die, aged 91, the following April. The figure, of course, is Picasso himself. In his middle 70s, after he was abandoned by his young and beautiful mistress, Françoise Gilot, he represented himself as some figure of contempt–an old man, a monkey, a clown, a grotesquely fat caricature of an infantile male personage, often an artist–juxtaposed with an inward-dwelling woman, a model, usually nude, indifferent to his presence. The male will often be shown draped and ornamented with the paraphernalia of worldly recognition–armor, for example, or robes too large by far for his shrunken physique. The woman needs no external mark of power. Her youth and nakedness, which at times is accentuated by a circlet of flowers worn in her hair, is emblem enough. In this small, scary masterpiece, Picasso is taking leave at once of life and of sex. Eros c’est la vie was the punning pronunciation of Rrose Sélavy–the pseudonym that his fellow eroticist, Marcel Duchamp, took for himself when he assumed his periodic female identity. The same disproportion of this farewell drawing is embodied in Duchamp’s monumental Large Glass, in which the Bride sits aloof and alone in an upper chamber while her various Bachelors are segregated in a limbo of desire below.

The disengaged vagina is a universal symbol. What Picasso has scrawled in the 1972 drawing could have been incised in plaster outside a doorway in India or brushed in red pigment on a wall in Rome at any moment of its history–or scribbled with ballpoint in lavatory booths or drawn with a pencil stub wherever lonesome men languish. On the other hand, it belongs to its meaning to be furtive and hidden. The female nude is omnipresent in Western art, but the representation of a woman with her genital orifice displayed is exceedingly rare. There are two celebrated exceptions. The first is the somewhat presumptuously titled The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, painted in 1866–roughly the moment when the term pornography entered the language. It shows a reclining woman, her legs spread apart, her garment lifted to the level of her breasts and her luxuriant pubic thatch exposed to the viewer. The woman’s head, lower legs and arms are cropped by the edges of the canvas, which was evidently kept covered by a green veil after the painting was done. It was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey, and was later acquired by the celebrated French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who was, incidentally, Picasso’s consultant on most medical questions. Lacan too kept it hidden–like the portrait of La Belle Noiseuse in Balzac’s Chef d’oeuvre inconnu. It was concealed behind a painting by Lacan’s brother-in-law, the Surrealist André Masson, and shown only to favored visitors. Courbet’s painting became the property of the French state after Lacan died, and I first saw it at–naturally–the Brooklyn Museum. It was shown in the 1988 “Courbet Reconsidered” exhibition in the days predating Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, when it aroused neither outcry nor outrage but only a certain curiosity. Later it went on view at the Musée d’Orsay, surrounded with enough art history almost to neutralize it. I once discussed it in a lecture at Yale but was hesitant to show a slide–though I was told afterward that avant-garde feminists have adopted it as a symbol of female power. In certain African societies it is considered lethal to behold a woman’s genitals, which are kept safely out of view by means of the myth of their dangerousness.

The other example is Duchamp’s mysterious Étant donnés… in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where, peering through a peephole, one finds oneself looking at the shaven cleft, between her spread legs, of a woman lying on her back. Duchamp designed the installation in such a way that the hole through which we see her will not allow the viewer to see her head or even if she has a head. It was Duchamp’s last work, done in secrecy during the last twenty years of his life, when the received opinion was that he had given up art for chess. There is a wall in “Picasso Érotique” with small apertures through which one can see backlit transparencies both of the Courbet and the Duchamp as Picasso’s predecessors in the representation of a woman’s open sexe. It is a distinguished but not a particularly extensive artistic genealogy, considering the wide distribution of this particular organ, and the extraordinary interest it generates in most of our lives. A visitor from outer space could acquire a wide knowledge from the history of art of what human females look like undressed, but have not a clue as to the vagina’s existence or visual appearance.

There are two main aesthetic reasons for its absence from art. The first is enunciated by Freud: The genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful. When a New York gallerist was shown some examples from a work by the French Surrealist Henri Maccheroni, titled 2000 photographies du sexe d’une femme, she said she realized why, by contrast with breasts and buttocks, this particular attribute played no part in the stereotype of feminine beauty. The second reason is this: The difference between male and female nudes is that the male’s genitals are visible unless they are covered but the female’s are invisible unless uncovered, which requires that the woman assume an awkward posture in which they are displayed. There are two circumstances in which this routinely takes place. The first is the gynecological examination. The second is where they are flashed by sex workers for the enticement and arousal of clients. In a superb review of a book on a brothel in a recent issue of this magazine, Leah Platt quoted the author’s interview of a working woman on her job, performed behind a window before a paying male: “make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stiletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven’t shaven off…until the customer comes, then move on to the next window.” The segregation of the Bride from the Bachelors in Duchamp’s Large Glass could be an allegory of this transaction.

In her legendary early film Fuses, the great performance artist Carolee Schneemann undertook to discover whether showing how sexual love looked corresponded to the pleasure of experiencing it, and this involved her in finding a way of exhibiting herself that was neither gynecological nor pornographic. I have never seen Fuses, but in her forthcoming book, Imaging Her Erotics, Schneemann describes how the film landed her in hot water with audiences from the art world, from which she had supposed she could count on a measure of support. Since there are a certain number of opened vaginas in “Picasso Érotique,” the exhibition’s organizers–Jean-Jacques Lebel and Jean Clair, director of the Musée national Picasso in Paris–prudently decided against seeking a New York venue for their show, thinking, with the European’s affecting ignorance of North American geography, that New Yorkers need but slip across the border to see it. So unless you’re prepared to take an hour’s flight on Air Canada–or do the thing properly by postponing your trip to Barcelona until the show is installed in the Museu Picasso, near where it all began–you’ll have to make do with consulting the catalogue and writing a letter of indignation to Giuliani’s Panel on Decency.

Just inside the entrance to “Picasso Érotique,” the exhibition’s designer has re-created an imagined bordello bedroom as one might have existed in the red-light district of Barcelona in the era of Picasso’s youth. Projected on its wall is a clip from what I take to be a vintage film, in which a generously proportioned woman, sitting on the edge of the bed, lifts her breasts in the time-honored way, and then stands, with her wrapper open, to give us a view of her nakedness. The action is pretty fast. We get a shot of a man administering cunnilingus while a frustrated customer peers through a keyhole until he evidently can’t hold himself in any longer and falls to the floor, clutching his front, like one of Duchamp’s bachelors. It certainly beats an acousta-guide in setting the somewhat merry tone the early drawings and watercolors carry out. The pictures are really scraps, pages from a sketchbook, graphic souvenirs of the artist’s erotic encounters in the kinds of bedrooms we have just seen, with the kinds of women we have just been shown. A lot of the pictures are on the border between cartoons and life drawings. There is a certain amount of cunnilingus, some lively sketches of an ecstatic woman in high sockings fingering herself, some scenes of women sitting around half-dressed, a few quite tender scenes of lesbian caress and a fairly ambitious painting of the artist himself, looking as innocent as a choirboy and wearing a striped jersey, being treated to fellatio. It is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I’ll lay odds that though it was painted in 1903, in the middle of Picasso’s extravagantly admired Blue Period, you won’t see it proudly displayed there when the Montreal show is over.

The interest of these mostly ephemeral works lies as much in what they tell us about the male sexual imagination as about what Picasso saw. Men visited the brothels of the so-called barrio chino–the Chinese Quarter of old Barcelona–as they visit brothels everywhere: in part to see, in part to enact, what life otherwise only allows them to imagine. That is why the displayed vagina belongs so centrally to pornography–the much-debated male gaze is not readily gratified, due to its object’s hiddenness. There are relatively few depictions in the early parts of the show of the way men and women in love express that condition sexually.

But there is a great deal of that in Picasso’s art, beginning with when he fell profoundly in love with Fernande Olivier in 1904, and began to see life en couleur de rose: The so-called Rose Period is not merely a change of palette. Pictures titled Le Baiser (The Kiss) or L’Étreinte (Embrace) outnumber by a significant factor those showing special couplings of the kind advertised in Pompei–though there is a gouache from 1917 that could easily have been copied from the kinds of souvenir postcards that are probably still hawked outside the excavations. Its chief pictorial function is to display the man’s enormous penis in a state of futile erection, since the couple has assumed a position too athletic for actual intercourse to take place: She is standing on her head, with one foot braced against his chin. In the main, except when he is being satirical, Picasso has no use for the caricaturely gross penis. He shows himself as normally proportioned in an awkward, scowling 1902 Self Portrait With Nude.

The kisses are intensely felt and at the same time comically shown: In a painting dated January 12, 1931, the couple dart their triangular tongues into each other’s mouths; the woman’s nose is draped affectionately over the man’s, her eyes closed and his rolled upward. In Figures at the Seashore, it is impossible to determine to which of the two kissers the breasts belong, as if the difference between two individuals has been transcended, and they are one being, with tangled legs and arms. One cannot but think, in these wonderful middle-period works, of Aristophanes’ vivid thesis in The Symposium, that each of us was once part of a single being, now split into two, each part seeking to be reunited with the other. So many of the Baisers and Étreintes are ingenious, imperfect reassemblages of bodily parts into helpless erotic wholes, destined to fall apart despite the great passion that brought them together. The overall mood is one of tenderness and comedy.

So I was not surprised to learn from the museum’s publicist that there have been very few complaints about the show in Montreal, though attendance so far has greatly exceeded expectations. But there has been a spontaneous show of affection on the part of those who visit the show together. Basically the show is about love. She told me that she had been alerted by one of the guards that couples often begin to hold hands while looking at the work, to whisper in each other’s ear, to embrace lightly, even to kiss. I found that a very touching discovery, and really something of a vindication for mounting such a show. It is evidence that there is more to experiencing art than allowing one’s eyes to be flooded with form. This is the power of erotic representation: We respond with affection. But sex has another strand as well, a raucousness and comedy that the ancients appreciated when they rocked with laughter at the sight of satyrs capering across the stage with leather phalluses. For all his tenderness, Picasso was a fierce satirist, aware that we can look pretty ridiculous in the grip of sexual passion. There is a delicious suite of etchings done in 1968, showing the painter Raphael making endless love to his mistress, La Fornarina, never so overcome by passion that he has to put down his brushes and palette and use both arms. In all of these images, Picasso shows the couple’s genitals fitted together like bolt and bolt-hole, but each wears the calm smile of Hindu deities in cosmic fornication, as if butter would not melt in their mouths. Most of these etchings contain observers as well as the lovers themselves. The Pope, for example, often drops into a picture to observe the action–and in some of them Michelangelo gets an eyeful while hiding under the bed.

Raphael, painter of sweet madonnas and charming infants, was not above doing a bit of pornography himself now and then. His notorious 1516 frescoes of the history of Venus, commissioned for Cardinal Bibbiena’s bathroom in the Vatican, were whitewashed over in the nineteenth century as inconsistent with what was felt to be spiritually fitting for the artist of the Acts of the Apostles. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the erotica of the masters. Ruskin had no hesitation in ordering the destruction of Turner’s horny drawings on the grounds that he was obviously insane when he drew them. But the depiction of sex was one of the main reasons that drawing was invented. Even the misogynous Degas executed a series of monoprints in the Maison Tellier, one of Paris’s best-known brothels of the 1880s. They show the prostitutes lounging about, waiting for clients or engaged in lesbian sex with one another. Picasso owned some of these quite compassionate images, and as he approached the age of 90, he devoted a rowdy suite of etchings to the somewhat implausible episode of Degas observing the whores. There are a good many exceedingly open, exceedingly juicy vaginas in these pictures, I would say lovingly drawn, in which it is indeterminate whether the women are mocking or tempting the voyeur. In one, Picasso shows lines of sight from Degas’s eyes to the hairy juncture of vaginal lips spread open for his uncertain delectation.

There are no open vaginas in Picasso’s own celebrated brothel scene, the famous Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of the canonical works of Modernism and by all accounts his masterpiece. It could in one way almost be a Cubist paraphrase of one of Degas’s monoprints, in which the women are gathered to greet the visitor, who will hopefully select one of them for whatever he is into. Here are five women in all–three classical figures to the viewer’s left, two masked women to the right, one of them, her back to us, squatting. The masks could be African, could be Oceanic, but hardly belong to any European tradition other than that of the ethnographic museum, where Picasso first saw them. Whatever they are up to, the women hardly look as if they are out to tempt us. If we did not know from scholarship that it was a brothel scene, it is hard to know how we would read the work. It is easy to sympathize with Alfred Barr, who acquired the painting for the Museum of Modern Art, when he described this as a purely formal figure composition, which as it develops becomes more and more dehumanized and abstract. Leo Steinberg quotes this in a great essay, together with a 1912 interpretation by the poet André Salmon, of Picasso’s own inner circle: The women “‘are naked problems, white numbers on a blackboard.’ Can we be looking at the same canvas?” Steinberg asks with incredulity. I shall always be grateful for this “Can we be looking at the same canvas?” It definitively erased from my aesthetic whatever inclination I had toward formalism in art. On the other hand, I am not ready to be included in the “us” to whom Steinberg says this picture looks like a tidal wave of female aggression. I cannot get female aggression to fit with the overall feeling toward women conveyed in this wonderful exhibition in Montreal, not even in the period when Picasso was painting Salome dancing for the price of John the Baptist’s head. The Demoiselles d’Avignon is not in the show, and that’s a good thing. Nobody really understands it; nobody is even able to say whether it is a success or a failure. It may not be white numbers on a blackboard, but it falls outside the range of the human–all too human–to which eroticism, as behavior and imagination, belongs.